Clearly, by our last post – Laos immediately left a great impression on us. Luang Prabang was amazing. It ticked every box when it comes to a place we love to hang out: it’s not too big, surrounded by nature, it’s cheap, the people are nice and it’s beautiful. What more could you want? Little did we know that Laos would just keep dishing out the goodness.
A Bit O’ History
We left Luang Prabang to head south to Vang Vieng. This tiny little backpacker town has a bit of an infamous reputation. Back in the early 2000’s – it was known as the place where any and everything goes. Backpackers were flocking there to drink themselves silly, smoke weed everywhere and indulge in “happy pizzas” and “happy shakes” which were basically pizzas and milkshakes with hallucinogenic mushrooms in them. Unfortunately – this also led to a string of tourists deaths because another big draw to this area is the river tubing. People were getting out of their minds on alcohol and drugs and doing really really dumb things like swinging off rope swings in shallow water or going off slides that put you right into some water that was surrounded by rocks. Not good.
Since then – the Laos government has put some major restrictions on these types of activities and the tiny little city of Vang Vieng is much more quiet now. Still a backpacker haven, just not as chaotic. Which is great for the locals too because they felt like their culture was being degraded (totally understandable.)
The Ride Down
Anyway! We took a small bus from Luang Prabang down to Vang Vieng which is about a 4 hour ride. The scenery was gorgeous! Rolling hills, greenery everywhere and each turn on the highway just took our breath away. The highway was a bit terrifying at times (as to be expected in rural SE Asia) but it was totally worth it. Really really steep hills made out of gravel with a semi truck halfway hanging off, one lane at times, etc. Also – the one bathroom stop we made didn’t actually have a bathroom so…that was interesting.
Getting To Know The Town
Once again – we had no idea what to expect rolling into the town. But…whatever it was that I was expecting…it was not that at all. This place is by far one of the most unique places we’d been so far. Development is at a minimum – there are buildings and hostels scattered throughout the town but paved roads? They aren’t quite there yet. There is a main highway and a couple of streets that are paved but for the most part it’s gritty, dusty and very “raw” still. We loved it.
Right off the bat though…as soon as we walked off the bus we were just awe-struck by the giant and beautiful mountains that are the backdrop to this small town. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I thought Luang Prabang was gorgeous but wow…this blew our minds. Sharp and majestic green mountains jutting out of the earth was our view the entire time. Unreal.
We had a week here and spent the first night getting our bearings (which doesn’t take too long) – there’s a river that runs through the city called the Nam Song river and tiny streets that are lined with bars and restaurants.
One of our absolute favorite things about this place – and it’s a well-known fact – is that almost every single bar in all of Vang Vieng is constantly playing episodes of Friends. Which to me? Is heaven! I mean – come on! Having a couple beers, eating great food all while the nostalgia of Friends is playing in the background?! It was amazing!
Tubing Down The Nam Song
Since tubing is one of the main things to do in Vang Vieng – of course, we were going to make it a day. Not to mention – tubing is one of our favorite things to do back home so it only made sense we do it here.
Basically – you rent an inner tube from the main “tubing office” downtown, hop in a songthaew that takes you up the river, float down and drop your tube back off! There are many places that offer tours that stop at bars and stuff along the way but don’t waste your money – you can easily do it on your own and on your own time.
We shared a songthaew up the river with 3 other tourists and began our float together. We started early (around 11am) so the river was pretty quiet for the most part – aside from a giant kayak tour group but they were faster than us so they sped on by. Ten minutes into the float you can hear loud thumping music coming from the first bar waving you in to have a beer. We all stopped.
After the quick beer and some good conversation we hopped back in the tubes to relax and float. It was so peaceful – surrounded by these giant green peaks and the slow moving water.
A note to make is that a decade ago, as mentioned earlier, the river was lined with bar after bar after bar. Clearly – that wasn’t the safest. So now…there’s only about 3 or 4 along the way. After that first stop though – we just made our way to the end, taking in some sun and relaxation. We never saw our beer buddies from before again but it was fun while it lasted!
By 2:30pm we were done with the float and spent the rest of our evening exploring the dirt roads some more. Such a half day well spent!
A Hike Up To Lusi Cave & Viewpoint
Just a short hike out of the city you are immediately in nature. There is literally nothing around you but mountains and fields that expand forever. One of the closest and most rewarding hikes to do is up to a panoramic viewpoint and into Lusi Cave.
About 2km out of town you can reach a hill that you can hike to the top of – giving you a gorgeous panoramic view of the little town. There’s a small admission but really…it’s about 50 cents. From the bottom you hike a really “non-American safety standard” type hike up to the top. Really steep stairs and unstable rocks put you at an amazing viewpoint.
Sketchily making our way back down from the viewpoint it was onward to the cave! It was probably an additional 2km from here to finally find Lusi Cave. The sign at the starting point promised a natural swimming hole so we were well prepared but…turns out…it’s only during the rainy season. There was no water at all.
Regardless – again, this was so not safety regulated in anyway. You pay a small admission, they give you a headlamp and say “have fun!” Let me tell you…this cave is huge and it’s PITCH BLACK. You can walk along the limestone and go deeper and deeper inside without any handrails or path or anything! Our headlamps would hit the stone and you’d just see minerals sparkling in the light. Insanely pretty!
We were only 2 of the 4 people in the entire cave and at one point we all turned off our headlamps. The blackness and silence was so f-ing scary. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face! But also? How cool is that?! To be able to experience something like that on your own without any tour guide or signs directing you on where to go. It was an awesome moment.
So Yeah…Laos Rocks…
Between our experiences with Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng – we can officially say that we love the country of Laos. It hasn’t reached peak tourism level so both places have their own charm without being ruined from outside influence. It’s an amazing country. We know that in 5 or 10 years it won’t be the same so we feel extremely lucky to have experience it when we did.
If you ever find yourself in SE Asia…it’s a MUST that Laos is on your itinerary. You won’t regret it one bit.